Saturday 20 October 2007

Systematic Death

At the risk of turning Postcards... into a covers bands appreciation blog, I can’t emphasise strongly enough how much everyone needs to hear 12 Crass Songs by Jeffrey Lewis. Jesus Christ, it’s good*.

Jeffrey Lewis is a New York folk singer of apparently some standing. Needless to say I’d never heard of him. 12 Crass Songs is an album whose neatly punning title partially disguises its does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin nature. Yup, this is 12 songs by the legendary anarchist punk band Crass covered in alt.folk style. And, remarkably, it is in no way post-modern, ironic, knowing, novelty-value kitsch. Lewis is a talented musician and his arrangements for the songs are at once perky, punchy and pretty. But, crucially, never once piss-taking. For some reason the term “folk music” always seems to conjure up the idea of melodic, lilting balladry. 12 Songs reminds you that before punk, especially in America, folk was *the* protest music of choice throughout the 60s, throughout the Vietnam War; that lyrical savagery needn’t be delivered with equally savage vocal register. Lewis can smile, and eviscerate while he smiles. I can’t remember the last time I was shocked by a record. I was shocked by 12 Crass Songs.

The tracklist is as follows (for those who know their Crass):

1. End Result
2. I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just a Trick
3. Systematic Death
4. The Gas Man Cometh
5. Banned From the Roxy
6. Where Next Columbus?
7. Do They Owe Us A Living?
8. Securicor
10. Big A, Little a
11. Punk Is Dead
12. Walls (Fun in the Oven)

From the off, the most striking about this record is the politics. It’s kind of easy to forget just how committed and radical Crass were. As the years roll by – we’re coming up for the 30th anniversary of their seminal e.p. The Feeding of the 5,000 – the music itself, simply in terms of its style and ferocity, can become a barrier between listener and message. It turns into a stylistic unit – medium and message meld together and become an historic moment. The most valuable service 12 Crass Songs performs for these songs is completely transforming them so that they can be heard afresh (in much the same way that a new production of a play can unlock fresh understanding of the text, while continued revivals of an old production lead to admiration of the production rather than the play – if that).

Moreover, Lewis’s replacing the snotty, inchoate, bile-fuelled snarl of the original vocals with tuneful, faintly melancholic, urbane singing makes the thoughts communicated infinitely more palatable. Yes, part of the point with Crass’s overall aesthetic was that it was difficult, and of its time; but it is fascinating how much power these words accrue for not being nearly choked into a microphone to the extent that they are all but unintelligible without a lyric sheet (OK, less so the Eve Libertine numbers, but...).

The most shocking thing, though, is how hugely removed from contemporary thinking the ideas and ideologies are. The idea of “social change” has been totally neutered in the past thirty years. To listen to this is to be reminded what “uncompromising” really means. It is astonishing to find yourself moved, appalled and thinking seriously about ideas that now appear to have been buried forever. Also surprising is the sheer level of intelligence, wit and persuasiveness on display. It was always pretty hard to take Do They Owe Us A Living? (answer: “course they do / course they do / course they fucking do”) seriously. Here, it briefly becomes almost credible. It is at least possible to follow the line of thinking for the first time. But, it is the totality, the completeness of Crass’s alternative worldview, that is most striking. How much it can still resonate is at once heartening and deeply alarming.

In the recent Guardian review of the album Dorian Lynskey suggests, “The language is inescapably rooted in the days when Thatcher and Reagan bestrode the Atlantic.” Wrong. Feeding of the 5,000 from which five of the songs are taken was mostly an attack on Callahan’s Labour. Crass’s defiantly utopian anarchism had no truck with socialist Labour’s “death in life” statist work ethic. It is the subsequent 18 years of Conservatism that seems to have inextricably linked all protest with The Left. As it stands, there are a number of curious synergies between Crass and today’s libertarians (consider, for example: “It's up to you to change your life and my life's up to me / The problems that you suffer from are problems that you make / The shit we have to climb through is the shit we choose to take / If you don't like the life you live, change it now it's yours / Nothing has effects if you don't recognise the cause” from Big A, Little a. Of course the proposed solutions vary, but the ideology of self-reliance is apparent enough).

It is a cliché of The Right that Socialism is ultimately de-humanising because it doesn’t trust people enough to do the right thing without state guidance. It is equally a cliché on The Left that The Right’s doctrine of “personal freedom” is “freedom to exploit” – rather illustrating The Right’s anxieties about The Left, but at the same time, in a manner that is easily demonstrable. Magically, Crass offer an impossibly hopeful Third Way of no state and total personal responsibility to one another. It’s as undeniably attractive as it is probably impossible (if history is anything to go by). “Some listeners may tire of being addressed as anaesthetised drones under the capitalist yoke.” Lynskey continues. Many more, I humbly submit, might recognise a long-forgotten starkness in the descriptions of their situation.

Of course there are differences between Britain in 1978 and, well, the world in 2007. Lewis addresses some, exchanging Iraq for (Northern) Ireland in Where Next Columbus? and Sarah Jessica Parker for Farah Fawcett in I Ain’t Thick... Lewis also rather sweetly cuts down the amount of swearing in the songs. Not in a censorious fashion, but rather like a good script editor might: picking the occasions where it really counts and hitting those dead-on while avoiding some of the occasions where it just forms alternative punctuation.

To modern eyes, it seems incredible now that Crass were courted by the KGB and IRA for their support and were spied on by MI5. But for thirty years of modernisation, including ten under New Labour, the division between rich and poor is still wholly recognisable. The biggest change, it seems, is that an attitude of mute acceptance and “aspiration” has replaced every last vestige of this once impressive defiance.

Jeffrey Lewis’s website is here and his MySpace here. The highest relevant Google hit for Crass is here - anyone with a better one, leave a comment and I’ll update/add.

* I know I should write something about theatre. I did see a reading of a European play this week: those involved should be grateful I haven’t the energy to write it up. I do have a glowing review of Radio 4’s OK Computer brewing, though.

Edit: Actually, it turns out that much of this post rather neatly forms a counterpoint to Andrew Field’s latest.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, this comment didn't appear when I first posted a shorter version of it:

Another indicator of how much time has passed and how much the concepts underlying the discourse have been warped is that today one can write something like "socialist Labour’s 'death in life' statist work ethic" with an utter absence of sarcasm but in fact believing that it's in any way an accurate description of the attitude underlying the Callaghan government or indeed any Labour government since Attlee's at the very least.

The climate that gave rise to Crass was one in which a couple of decades of consensus politics were in the process of being shattered by Thatcher's opposition. So, not entirely unlike today's consensus, eh? Except that where today's policies of all three main parties are based on the "choice" of the market, the foundation of Butskellism was an awareness of (with small letters) a fundamental social contract.

The Crass commune replaced that contract with one negotiated amongst themselves, which is fine; but they then assumed, as many anarchists do, that such contracts can be negotiated by everyone, and therefore that those who aren't brought within consensual communal arrangements have only themselves to blame. To me, that would seem to include categories such as the ill, the less intelligent, in a lot of instances the poor... those who have too little to offer such a set-up: the social equivalent of the kids who never get picked at games. And do we owe them a living? Course we do, course we do, course we fuckin' do.

Andrew Haydon said...

Re: "...shorter version..."

Not me, guv. Promise.

"...believing that it's in any way an accurate description of the attitude underlying the Callaghan government..."

Mostly their words, entirely their sentiments that I was trying to put across there.

There's probably a useful exercise to be done counting the number of times Crass use the words "they", "them" and "system" across their works. I'd say the formula for each would run: N (number of songs)x X (number of lines)x 2.

And I'm not saying I'm whole-heartedly throwing myself in with a largely defunct band of anarcho-punks either. And yes, sometimes their compassion flips into contempt. And you can probably drive trucks through the many holes in their arguments.

But by God it is more challenging than anything (that I can think of) we've got now, even though their message can be boiled down to: Virtually everything = social control.

Listening while reading the Star on Sunday's Hot Celebs magazine (or somesuch)(- for work, ok?) one sudden gets a nasty lurching feeling that nearly everyone has taken their eyes right off the ball.

Anonymous said...

Didn't mean to suggest you'd stiffed my first post - I've been having browser problems. Sorry, to, that I attributed the views of Messrs Rimbaud et al to you when I kicked off :-)

And God knows, "Virtually everything = social control" is a message that we need to hear now more than ever. Help Me, Brother Idol - I'm Dancing With Fame, Get Me Out Of This Fat Location! (press red)

Anonymous said...

I can't stand this guy's covers of Crass. When I first heard about it I was psyched about the idea of someone having a melodic take on Crass, but this guy's voice is just so monotone and unemotional. It's like he just killed the meaning of all the songs.